Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

It is terribly easy for the learned and scholarly readers of this blog – and even its author – to forget that most people in this world honestly have no idea about history at all.  To the ordinary man, the present fills almost his entire field of view.  To him history is a kind of cloud, somewhere far away and not at all important, in which float about Greeks and Romans and knights in armour and the like.  But to the educated man the world is like an onion, of successive layers, with the present growing out of the past.

These thoughts, which if I recall correctly are from C.S.Lewis somewhere, were prompted by seeing twitter posts asserting that Easter was Babylonian, or indeed the name of Astarte.  Only those utterly ignorant could suppose this.  But I wondered from where this came.

A little searching brought me to a curious anti-Catholic book by Alexander Hislop named The Two Babylons.  This seems to be the origin of it.

Consider this passage:

Then look at [the festival of] Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.* The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves.” Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians …

But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British Islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind. From Bel, the first of May is still called Beltane in the Almanac;+ and we have customs still lingering at this day among us, which prove how exactly the worship of Bel or Moloch (for both titles belonged to the same god) had been observed even in the northern parts of this island.

“The late Lady Baird of Fern Tower, in Perthshire,” says a writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ thoroughly versed in British Antiquities++ “told me, that every year, at Beltane (or the first of May), a number of men and women assemble at an ancient Druidical circle of stones, on her property near Crieff. They light a fire in the centre, each person puts a bit of oat cake in a shepherd’s bonnet; they all sit down and draw blindfold a piece from the bonnet. One piece has been previously blackened, and whoever gets that piece has to jump through the fire in the centre of the circle, and pay a forfeit. This is, in fact, a part of the ancient worship of Baal, and the person on whom the lot fell was previously burnt as a sacrifice. Now the passing through the fire represents that, and the payment of the forfeit redeems the victim.”

If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort Astarte was also adored by our ancestors; and that from Astarte, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar, the religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter—that month, among our Pagan ancestors, having been called Easter-monath. The festival of which we read in Church history, under the name of Easter, in the third or fourth centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Romish Church, and at that time was not known by any such name as Easter.* It was called Pasch, or the Passover, and though not of Apostolic institution,+ was very early observed by many professing Christians, in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

++ The Right Hon. Lord John Scott.
* The name of Easter is peculiar to the British Islands.
+ Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22).

 The author then goes on to discuss the idea of Lent, and to make a series of claims about the origins of this which need not detain us.

The argument above is simple, once we remove the verbiage, and so let’s examine it:

  1. There is a folk custom of celebrating “Beltane”, according to a 19th century almanac.
  2. The name must refer to the Babylonian god Bel or Ba`al.  (Why?)
  3. This is confirmed by a piece of folk-lore where people in Scotland burn something. (If this story is true, why does it relate in any way?)
  4. If Bel was here, then Astarte must be too.  (Why?)
  5. If the pagans of whatever period is mentioned worshipped Bel and Astarte, then Eosturmonath – the name of the spring season, given by Bede and nowhere else – must refer to Astarte.  (Why?)
  6. So the inhabitants of Babylon must pronounce Astarte in the same way as Britons of 19th century England pronounce Easter. (Why?)

Each claim is open to a simple objection – that the claim made is not evidenced, and that there is no special reason to believe it.  Each and every step in this argument is open to the very same objection.  Yet unless all of them are true, the argument collapses.

And the claims are simply ridiculous.

Why should a modern Scottish folk custom relate to Bel of Babylon?  Why should a modern Scottish custom relate to the nomenclature of the Anglo-Saxons a millennium earlier?

Which people precisely are supposed to have adopted Bel – the beaker folk?  The celts?  The Romano-British?  The picts? For there has been much movement of peoples in Britain.

The claim to know how the ancient Babylonians pronounced Astarte … where does Hislop get his information? Time travel?

But it is pointless to go on with beating this drivel to death.  Hislop has no evidence, his argument is just a sequence of claims, none of them at all probable.  It’s drivel and nothing else.

As a final note, let’s return to Hislop’s footnote about Socrates:

Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22)

The HE of Socrates is online, and book 5 chapter 22 is here.  We may note that Hislop’s words are not to be found in it.  In fact Socrates doesn’t discuss that issue, but instead says that the exact date of celebrating Easter, and the fasts connected to it, were not specified by the apostles; not that celebrating it was not specified.

2 thoughts on “Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

  1. This reminds me of what I have seen called ‘Fluellenism’ from the way Shakespeare has Captain Fluellen make his case for the similarities between ‘Alexander the Pig’ and Henry V.

    And of the attractions of folk etymology…

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